By Steve Lohr
Basic Books. 250 pp. $27.50
the time before geeks began ruling our lives, a recent book examines
the early days of the information age.
To The Story of the Math Majors, Bridge Players, Engineers, Chess Wizards,
Maverick Scientists and IconoclastsThe Programmers Who Created
the Software Revolution
Graham Bell. Thomas Edison. Everyone knows the names of the inventors
responsible for the myriad innovationsfrom the telephone to the
light bulbthat transformed civilization and propelled humankind
giant steps closer to the next century. But beyond Bill Gates and Steve
Jobs, even the most gung-ho technophiles don't know the names of the
men and women who created programming software, which has revolutionized
everything from education, entertainment, and shopping to manufacturing,
banking, and health care. It's a field that is almost uniquely
ignorant of its own history, says Steve Lohr, a technology writer
for the New York Times.
why Lohr has written a book profiling the people behind the bits, bytes,
clicks, and codes that define the information age. With a mouthful of
a title, Go To: The Story of the Math Majors, Bridge Players,
Engineers, Chess Wizards, Maverick Scientists and IconoclastsThe
Programmers Who Created the Software Revolution, the book lays
out the evolution of the major programming languages that have taken
software from room-sized computers that demanded a cadre of highly trained
programmers to run to ever-shrinking-in-size PCs that ordinary Joes
and Josephines with nary a computer skill can operate with the simple
click of a mouse.
buffs and die-hard geeks aren't the only readers who will appreciate
the insights in Go To. Learning about software's origins
can also help engineering educatorsand students. As Lohr explains,
advances in software tend to be incremental, so being well-versed in
the software lore can provide an edge. What's more, in painting portraits
of the various and sundry individuals responsible for breakthrough software,
Lohr helps pinpoint the attributes of a good programmer in case the
undeclared are looking for guidance. The best programmers have
the mental muscles for both conceptual thinking and procedural detail
and the uncanny ability to shift back and forth effortlessly, from high-level
design to close-to-the-machine implementation, says Lohr in the
book. And for the people who are good at it, using those mental
muscles is not only fun but oddly compulsive.
the movers and shakers Lohr profiles include Jean Sammet, a Sperry Gyroscope
Company employee who studied math at the University of Illinois. Sammet
was part of the team that dreamed up COBOL. To her, math was an
elevated intellectual pursuit, while engineering was the grubby work
of machinistsa fairly prevalent attitude among those studying
math theory, says Lohr. She soon changed her tune, earning a place
and Dennis Ritchie, who created the UNIX operating system in 1969, owe
the success of their endeavor to the joy of tinkering around to find
the right tool without the pressures of commercialism. We didn't
have the mentality, says Thompson. We did it for ourselves.
We were arrogant czars in that sense. And the turning point that
led to UNIX? When Bell Labs scientist Doug McIlroy suggested connecting
programs like connecting two garden hose segments. In other words, screw
in another segment when it becomes necessary to massage data in another
one of the most interesting chapters in Go To relays the
birth of BASIC. In the early 60s, two Dartmouth College professors,
Thomas Kurtz and John Kemeny, realized that computers were the futureyet
only a quarter of Dartmouth's student body majored in science or engineering,
the group most likely to be interested in computing. Kurtz
and Kemeny felt that didn't jibe with the decision-makers of business
and politics, who typically came from the non-techie contingent. In
order to teach the liberal art students computer know-how (remember,
they weren't bred on computers like today's youngsters are), the two
men designed BASIC. It was a tool for the beginner, easily understood,
with no hardware knowledge required. Its commands were simple: LET,
READ, DATA, INPUT, GOTO, IF THEN, etc. In the fall of 1964, the two
pioneers taught their first semester, which led to some basic
modifications and streamlining in the second semester. We had
underestimated how badly our students type.
a good chunk in his book to Charles Simonyi, the young Hungarian computer
whiz who designed Bravo with colleague Butler Lampson at Xerox PARC
in the 70s. Simonyi eventually teamed up with Bill Gates at Microsoft
to spearhead the technical development of Wordone of the world's
most popular software programs. Says Lohr: Simonyi's effort
on Bravo alone was a significant contribution to the fieldone
that would eventually affect how millions of people create documents
on computers, from business memos to novels.
so fascinating about Simonyi, other than his penchant for showing up
at noctural debugging sessions in a debugging suit of a
black net shirt and translucent, skin tight black pants, is that he
is still perfecting software, still looking for a Big Bang-style
breakthrough in programming productivity. Specifically, Simonyi
wants to devise a system to free the human intelligence of the
developer from the walled cities of individual computer
to mention in any book about software is Andy Hertzfeld, who was hired
by Apple in 1979 and later programmed the guts of the vaunted Macintosh,
the machine that brought point-and-click computing to the
masses, says Lohr. The secret to the Mac's success was its friendly
face, and Lohr credits Hertzfeld and his team for recognizing that PCs
would never become household appliances until the touchy-feely aspects
of software were mastered. It's really fun to be in the middle
of the technical, precise, and objective computer, Hertzfeld tells
Lohr in the book, and the fuzzy, emotional, subjective human being.
I've always loved art, especially literature and music, and I think
the human element is what can elevate engineering to the realm of art.
nothing on the information age landscapeand to commerce and industryhas
had as much impact as the World Wide Web. That's all because of Tim
Berners-Lee, a British physicist, father of URL, HTTP, and HTML. How
he got there, he says in the book, is no mystery: He based it on a program
he wrote for himself for storing personal information, perfecting the
addressing, linking, and transferring as the years went by.
the debut of the World Wide Web, it's hard to fathom another software
milestone. But it was only a matter of time until Java made headlines.
Created by James Gosling, Java, says Lohr, is the FORTRAN of the Internet
age. Indeed, Lohr believes Java is the model of incremental development,
the essence of any breakthrough software. All innovation is incremental
in that it builds on top of previous knowledge. Yet a creative insight
is required to assemble the building blocks of previous knowledge in
new ways. Java contains that spark of fresh, organizing insight.
No wonder Gosling is the man behind the magic. He had a knack for repairing
things as a young boy, from a decrepit baler in his grandfather's yard
to the first computer he made from spare parts found in a dumpster at
the age of 12. He, too, is still hard at work, aiming to develop more
tools to help programmers as software becomes ever more complex.
the book, Lohr sprinkles in fascinating details that often get lost
in current discussions of the information age. An example: Gosling originally
wanted to call Java Oak, inspired by a tree outside his
office. But a naming committee liked someone's notion that Java made
them feel excited, like being overdosed on coffee.
getting to know the story of software, readers will be reminded that
the past is prologue. For example, the team that created FORTRAN in
1957, the brainchild of IBM's John Backus, was an eclectic buncha
crystallographer, a cryptographer, a chess wizard, an employee loaned
from United Aircraft, a researcher from MIT, a young woman who joined
the project straight out of Vassar. Today's dot-commers might
chuckle to learn they weren't the first to cobble together a motley
crewand invent a product that could change the world.
more, many of today's standard operating procedures in Silicon Valley
derived from practical considerations. Before personal computers, techies
shared time on big mainframe computers. They often worked at nights
because it was the only time they could get valuable time on the machine
to test and debug their code, says Lohr. The odd hours and
close work bred camaraderie. And relieving pressure by playing
silly games wasn't just a 90s trend. For relaxation, there
were lunch-time chess matches and, in the winter, impromptu snowball
no book on software would be complete without a discussion of the open
source movement, which demands that software be distributed freely.
Lohr provides a unique perspective on the movement, explaining views
of the proponents Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman, who are closely
associated with it.
there's a sequel in the works. Lohr's Afterword touches
on the next step in the evolution of softwaregrid computingwhich
is already being researched in various labs and universities across
the nation. At software's current pace of development, Lohr might be
writing for a long, long time.
Margaret Mannix is a freelance writer based in suburban Washington,
D.C. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.